Gregorian as Man of Many Institutions Sees Most of Them Failing
A Chinese education minister once said to Carnegie Corporation of New York President Vartan Gregorian: “You Americans, you always look at your watches. We look at our calendar.”
The long-term view preoccupied the head of the multibillion-dollar foundation, which turns 100 this year, during an interview at Bloomberg headquarters in New York on Wednesday. Gregorian, 77, spoke of his concerns about the course of the U.S., from its education system and President Barack Obama to moral failure on Wall Street.
“The challenge is so great, not because we’re falling behind,” he said. “The rest of the world is catching us. They’re not dumb.”
Gregorian, awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2004, has served as president of the New York Public Library and Brown University, and has received almost 70 honorary degrees. He got another on May 14 at St. Edward’s University in Austin.
“We need to be capable of real moral outrage and sensitive to the pain and sorrow of our fellow men and women,” he said in his commencement speech. “I have often said that perhaps America is not perfect, but it is perfectible.”
The Penn Current, a publication at the University of Pennsylvania, where he became a history professor in 1972 and was the university’s provost from 1978 to 1981, once described him as “a man with an amiable visage framed by a gleaming white goatee.” At Bloomberg’s offices, he was still goateed as he alluded to Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s 18th-century play “The Critic,” sports scores and George Orwell in the answer to one question.
According to its 2010 annual report, the Carnegie Corporation’s asset value was $2.5 billion as of Sept. 30, 2010. It spent more than $2.3 billion on programs and administration during the previous half-century.
Current work focuses on international peace and security, Islam and higher education in the U.S. and Africa.
“We have no system of education in the United States. We have a non-system system,” Gregorian said, speaking about public-school districts.
“And then our schools of education are disasters, most of them,” he said. In January, Carnegie announced it was supporting a rating system for more than 1,000 teacher- preparation programs. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has spoken about reforming those programs, too.
Gregorian described his disappointment with foreign policy’s obsession over chess pieces, with little attention paid to the world’s board, where there is “irrationality, prejudice, greed, ambition, hubris.”
He said he wanted the government to use anthropology, literature and linguistics. He also spoke about everyday words: their potential emptiness and their power. “Self-censorship is the worst feature of our democracy,” he said.
Obama did not escape his criticism. Gregorian, who was born in Iran to Armenian Christians, brought up the president’s unfulfilled campaign pledge to publicly call the killing of more than 1 million Armenians by Ottoman Turks in 1915 an act of genocide.
“He did not have to promise that,” he said. “He could have said, ‘I’ll look into it and I’ll do my best.’ So Armenians now are hopping mad.”
Gregorian hasn’t been back to Iran since the 1979 revolution. “Not because I don’t want to, because I don’t believe in dual citizenship,” he said. “They won’t allow me to go without an Iranian passport.”
Asked about the Iranian Armenians, he said their numbers weren’t significant: “You’re like an olive in the martini.”
His heritage has caused Gregorian trouble. In 1981, when he became the president of the New York Public Library, the institution had a hard time finding him a co-op apartment.
“With a member of a minority group living in the building,” the head of the board at 1120 Park Avenue told the New York Times, “the value would go right down like that.”
By 1984, his tenure at the once-sleepy library was being celebrated by a New York magazine profile that called him “all twinkle-eyed, beaming ebullience.” That article ended with a quote that said it was “destiny” he’d be a university presidency.
In 1989 he left the library for Brown. “We’re the ballerina of the Ivy League, we’re always on our toes, because we have no shoes,” he said, speaking about the school’s endowment. “We always must dance.”
A Pocket Watch
He left Brown for the Carnegie Corporation in 1997, and said he is happy to be handing out money instead of requesting it from others. Asked about Wall Street, and the report this week that Goldman Sachs Group Inc. (GS), Bank of America Corp. (BAC) and Morgan Stanley (MS) will meet with New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman as part of an investigation into mortgage securitization, Gregorian said that banking standards have shifted.
“What is legal is considered ethical,” he said. “It was not always that.”
He said he hasn’t offered that opinion to major bankers. “Experience is like having a pocket watch: Wait until somebody asks, ‘What time is it?’ And I say, ‘Oh! It’s 2 o’clock.’ But I don’t go around town and say, ‘Do you want to know what time it is? I have a watch!’ People will laugh at me.”
(Max Abelson is a reporter for Bloomberg News. Any opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the reporter on this story: Max Abelson in New York at email@example.com.
To contact the editor responsible for this story: David Scheer at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bloomberg moderates all comments. Comments that are abusive or off-topic will not be posted to the site. Excessively long comments may be moderated as well. Bloomberg cannot facilitate requests to remove comments or explain individual moderation decisions.